AMISTAD had director Steven Spielberg making up ground lost to some offended members of the African-American community (and many critics) for his problematic handling of The Color Purple by tackling a neglected slice of US history, the trial of a group of African slaves who overtook the ship bearing them to servitude. The 1839 seizure, which provoked an international incident with Spain, and the legal drama that ended in the Supreme Court in 1841 serve to highlight the greater institutional crime of slavery and its unending torment to the soul of the country.
Not a complete success; it’s too long (154 minutes) and is somewhat marred by a few touches of Steven-sentiment slosh. The scene of lead defendant ‘Cinque’ letting go with wails of “Freedom!” at the astonished courtroom, to the grandswell of John Williams chorale music is over-the-top, and the finale likewise plays patty-cake with mostly triumphant resolutions.
Those flaws are negligible next to the most memorable segment of the film: the vividly recreated ‘Middle Passage’ voyage of horror, giving the audience a tiny view into some of what millions of terrified forced-immigrants endured (those who lived) during their crossing to The Land Of The ‘Free’.
Fine cast throughout, with magnificent work from the commanding Djimon Hounsou (33 here, in 1997) as the noble, intelligent hero of the revolt. Strong turns from Anthony Hopkins (doddery mode as John Quincy Adams) and Pete Postlethwaite as the determined prosecutor.
On board and pulling proper weight are Matthew McConaughey, Morgan Freeman, Nigel Hawthorne, David Paymer, Stellan Skasgard, Anna Paquin and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Critics were respectful, and the $36,000,000 production returned $44,200,000, 48th place for the year. Oscar nominations went for Hopkins as Supporting Actor, Music Score (well done apart from that one splurge), Cinematography and Costume Design. Historians took the show to the barn for some juggling of chronology, anachronistic references and typical movie simplifying of events, cause and effect.
Shot in a lightning 31 days, with Tomas Milian, Derrick Ashong, Geno Silva, Paul Guilfoyle, Peter Firth, Jeremy Northam, Austin Pendleton, Pedro Armendariz Jr.